New products in the news: Are you reading a sales pitch?

Knowing when an article is really an advertisement can help you make smart decisions.

Man using a laptop computer

Advertising can help us find good products to consider. However, most of us also understand that advertisements exist to sell a product, and accordingly, we consider claims with a grain of salt.

Do you always know when you’re reading an advertisement? From social media posts to trade journal articles, new marketing strategies can create ambiguity between product effectiveness and simply a sales slogan. While these postings should contain words like ad, sponsored or partner, this isn’t always the case.

Sometimes articles in trade journals and other outlets discuss the novelty and benefits of a product without making it clear what role the company played in producing the article. The content often sounds authoritative, impartial and backed by science, but this impression can be misleading.

Why is this a problem? Confusing a sales pitch with unbiased information can affect decisions you make, impacting invested time as well as productivity and profitability of your operation. Of course, this is not limited to agricultural products. You would interpret the claim that “coffee is good for your health” differently if it came from an impartial health researcher versus a coffee advertising executive.

Sponsored advertisements disguised as guest columns occur in many magazines and newspapers, including industry and trade publications. Rooting them out and identifying them for what they are is a broadly applicable skill that can help you make the smartest purchasing decisions for you and your business.

What to look for

Conflicts of interest

Who authored the article? Who is quoted? Are they employed by the company selling the product? Do they have an incentive or a vested interest in portraying the product positively? Are the results being misrepresented for financial gain?

Scope of the claims

Generally, if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Nothing works all the time or everywhere. Can you find the original research or just a company summary? Are the authors extrapolating results from the greenhouse to the field with no additional field tests, or from one crop to another, or one region to another?

Causation is hard to prove, especially in field settings where the environment outside of a product application plays such a huge factor on crop performance. Multiple replicated trials across regions and crops can show where and when a product is more correlated with crop performance. To treat a product’s advertisement fairly would discuss the positive and negative patterns instead of cherry-picking only the good stuff, and there should always be check or control data to compare to.

Data presentation can mislead as well. Are the scales on the x and y axis appropriate? A 0.5-bushel difference in soybean looks very dramatic when the y axis only encompasses a 5 or 10 bushel total spread. Your local Michigan State University Extension educator is always available to talk through the science (or lack of science) behind the claim you’re deciphering.

Sources of the claims

What evidence is the piece presenting and who are the sources? Often these subtle sales pitches rely on testimonials with product users saying how good the crop looked. There is rarely anything quantifiable. If all you’re reading is glowing testimonials, there is very likely bias. Impartial articles should present appropriate comparisons, contrasts with alternatives and the cons along with the pros should be plainly apparent and treated fairly.

Another source of claims is scientific journal articles. Sometimes, a sales pitch will take a general, peer-reviewed study and use what it says to support their product. For example, a fertility product might take a scientific paper about the role of field-applied nitrogen and how it impacts the environment. They will link the paper to their product, even if the paper had nothing to say about the fertility product. This gives the product the sheen of the prestigious publication, but the publication is general and did not test the product in question. If the paper is publicly available, using crtl+F to search the article for the product could help you figure out if the product is discussed in the paper. If the paper is behind a paywall, your local MSU Extension educator can help you track down and evaluate the paper.

Manufacturers of novel products can have published but questionable scientific papers. It can be hard for the public to access journal articles, but you can tell a couple things about the publication from its name. Sometimes you will see papers that appear in publications called proceedings. Proceedings are published material that cover what was presented at a conference, including corporate conferences, and aren’t reviewed by other scientists for validity. These aren’t always very reliable sources of unbiased information.

Another thing you can look at is the journal itself; a quick search can give you an idea of how reputable a scientific journal is. How many issues are there? Who publishes it? Are they begging for submissions and will print anything? Your local MSU Extension educator can assist in tracking down individual scientific papers and reviewing what they say.

Final thought

We are not saying new products aren’t effective or that they can’t have a place in your production system. Your local sales representative can be a great source of information. But knowing when you’re being sold to and when you’re receiving impartial information will help you make better decisions for profitable crop production.

If you have a question about the science or evidence behind a product, MSU Extension is an impartial source for science-based information. Contact your local MSU Extension educator.

Did you find this article useful?